Experts Answer Questions on Iran

Guests offer their analysis on Iran's nuclear prgram, its influence in the Middle East and its alleged supply of weapons to Iraq. David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, and Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, also examine the U.S. relationship with Iran.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In recent weeks, the U.S. government sent mixed signals about its policy on Iran. First, military officials in Baghdad said that senior Iranian leadership sent lethal weapons to Shia militias in Iraq that were used against U.S. soldiers.

The president dispatched a second aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf as a show of force and, after Iran failed to meet a United Nations deadline to halt uranium enrichment, Washington said it would press the Security Council to impose new sanctions.

But this week the Bush administration agreed to meet in Baghdad with Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran. Some in Congress worry that the president plans to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if talks stall or that an incident might trigger a war. There are lots of questions about Iran's intentions and Washington's, about diplomacy and saber rattling, about very big bombs and very small ones.

Questions and answers on Iran. Later in the program, another visit with The Motley Fool and a look at how the sudden slide on Wall Street affected my fantasy investment portfolio. All right, I guess we'll take questions about your investments, too. But first an Iran Q&A. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

We have two guests with us today to try to answer your questions, David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program, David.

Mr. DAVID SANGER (Chief Washington Correspondent, New York Times): Good to be here.

CONAN: And also with us is Abbas Milani - excuse me Milani. He's director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, and he joins us from a studio on Stanford's campus in California. Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director of Iranian Studies Program, Stanford University): Thank you for having me, sir.

CONAN: And before we take your questions, David Sanger, the White House is downplaying the agreement to meet with Syria and Iran as no real change in policy, yet the president brushed off a very similar proposal from the Iraq Study Group for a regional security meeting.

Mr. SANGER: The White House is doing this incrementally, and of course this White House is allergic to any admission that they are changing policy, as most White Houses are. This one is particularly vociferous on that point. But something has changed here, and what has changed in the minds of the people in the administration I've talked to is they feel as if they finally have a bit of leverage.

When the Iraq Study Group report came out, the administration's reaction to it at the time was it's not enough to say that we'll just sit down and talk. You have to sit down and talk with the knowledge that you have something that the Iranians need, and at that moment they thought the Iranians sort of had us over a barrel.

They were building their nuclear project and they were helping some group of insurgents and militias in Iraq, and we had very little to offer back. Now what the president believes we've done is put forces off of the Iranian coast - a reminder that we could get to their nuclear program - revealed some of the weapons that the administration says but has not yet proven are coming from Iran. And they believe that this escalating pressure has finally given them a wedge.

CONAN: And so therefore with something in their quiver. At the same time, Abbas Milani, the Iranians are coming to this meeting presumably because they think they have something to gain, too.

Prof. MILANI: I think they have something to gain, but I also think they are much, much more worried about a U.N. resolution than about the armada. I think they have been very clear in the Iranian Web sites and the Iranians papers that the passage of the first U.N. resolution, toothless as it was, was a warning to them. And the idea that there will be a second one coming and that the United States would be able to unite with China, Russia and the EU in imposing limited sanction has truly made many in the regime afraid. It has spooked the economy, and it has convinced them that time for some kind of negotiated settlement might be now.

CONAN: So you're convinced that this prospect of a United Nations resolution, more sanctions, is more important than the kind of good cop, bad cop, United States is playing both roles?

Prof. MILANI: I think so, and I tried to make that argument, in fact, in the New York Times article I wrote last Friday. And I said that it would be a mistake to think that it is the armada alone that is convincing them to change their mind.

If you read what they are saying, and if you follow the discussions that have been going on, if you follow this slide that Ahmadinejad has been on, I think you can pinpoint it to the passage of the U.N. resolution and the recognition by many in the regime in Tehran that Ahmadinejad and his loose tongue and his ignorant ways about the world are causing them serious possibility of losing the diplomatic game and eventually, ultimately maybe even losing power.

CONAN: Here's a question from Jan(ph) in Sacramento by e-mail. She writes: Listening to this administration's drumbeat on Iran sounds just like the buildup to the war in Iraq. I'm very worried that President Bush will bomb multiple sites in Iran without asking anyone. How likely is this, David Sanger?

Mr. SANGER: I don't think it's highly likely, but I certainly wouldn't rule it out. You know, I think Professor Milani has got it just right when he makes the point that a good deal of this effort by the administration has been to force concessions, particularly on the nuclear arena, by not only isolating Iran but making it clear that they're paying a very high price for the nuclear program.

And Iran in many ways is more susceptible to that than North Korea is. North Korea's already one of the most isolated countries in the world. The Iranians need a flow of foreign capital to upgrade their oil fields and their oil equipment. They have a young population that's interested not only in what's happening elsewhere in the world but that wants to travel elsewhere in the world.

That's not the case in the case of the North Korea populace, at least not yet. And so these resolutions actually have managed to create a debate in Iran, and the armada, as Professor Milani has referred to, has created some doubt in the marketplace.

So I think the president is interested in creating enough doubt about whether or not there could be an attack that it helps rattle both the Iranians and the markets. The big question is what happens if the Iranians don't get off of the current schedule they're on, and if a year from now, say, they appear to be close enough to a weapon that the president comes to the determination that no amount of sanctions is going to work and he has to carry through on what he's already said, which is that he would not tolerate a nuclear Iran.

Given the pace of their nuclear program, I think we're a ways from that.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Jason(ph), Jason with us from Londonderry, Vermont.

JASON (Caller): Hi. I was wondering how much - credibility's not probably the right word - but how much stake people put in the information that Seymour Hersh has put out with his articles about - the last one saying that the president wants to be able to strike Iran within 24 hours or something, and that we're working with…

CONAN: Not that he's going to do it tomorrow, but he wants the capability to do it within any 24-hour period.

JASON: Right. Yeah, you know, it's a contingency plan, but that he's - that seems really substantive. And then the other thing is that we're working with Sunnis within Lebanon, kind of - he says that they're…

CONAN: Well, why don't we stick to Iran, where he says we're working with dissident groups in Iran as well, to mount this - we've been seeing, Abbas Milani, these series of attacks in Iran. I think one as recently as today. And these are Azeri separatists, Baluchi separatists, and according to the Seymour Hersh article, these are being sponsored by the United States or assisted by the United States.

JASON: Yes.

Prof. MILANI: Yes, certainly, that's what the Iranians also say. Particularly, they're working about the Balochistan because not only those have been the most serious and they have been the most consistent in the last month, but the Balochistan province holds a very important key to what the regime is trying to do in the sense of building a pipeline from Iran to Pakistan to India and eventually to China.

And these disruptions are making it almost impossible to think seriously about this. And in terms of the Sy Hersh article, I think if you look at the past evidence in the American archives, you would see that even during the Shah -when the Shah was the closest ally of the U.S. - the president often asked for contingency plans. What would the U.S. be able to do if the Soviet Union, for example, attacked?

The contingency plan doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to attack. What worries me is that these contingency plans are being leaked to Mr. Sy Hersh. And whether they're being leaked by those who are worried about the possibility of this attack, or whether they are being leaked by those who want the Iranians to fear this possibility, or whether they're being leaked by the administration to prepare the atmosphere for the eventuality of such an attack, that's the part that I don't know, and that's the part that frightens me. Because I am absolutely convinced that if that possibility ever becomes reality, it would be a grave, grave mistake by the United States - something comparable, if not greater, than the mistake in Iraq.

JASON: Can I - I think that was my big question. How the information that he puts out there affects not only the conversation amongst, you know, the community, but the government and just the political situation. Because it seems - it's monumental in a certain way. How would it affects the conversation, that's what I'm wondering.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much for the call, I appreciate it. All right.

JASON: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: All right. Malcolm from Grants Pass, Oregon writes: I've been following several presidential candidates - John McCain, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton. They all refuse to rule out an attack on Iran. Some of them say we must leave all options on the table. Is there any politician out there that's bold enough to say we should not, under any circumstance, go to war with Iran?

David Sanger?

Mr. SANGER: If there is, I haven't heard one. I have heard a lot of vague statements about under what conditions one might do that. But, you know, if you think you're going to be elected president of the United States and you know that your words will be thrown back at you the day after you enter the White House, you have to think for a bit about whether or not you would want to take the notion of force off the table. Because even if you think it's a terrible idea - and I think, you've heard some arguments today about why it would be counterproductive - very frequently, the threat of force is used or has been used back to Jefferson's time to back up diplomacy.

CONAN: Strategic ambiguity.

Mr. SANGER: Strategic ambiguity is our modern phrase. We've had lots of other phrases for it over the years. And frequently, countries will not negotiate with you seriously if they don't think you have an option if diplomacy fails. And so to take it off the table right away is sometimes opposed even by those people who are most interested in engagement, and most interested in a diplomatic solution.

CONAN: We're speaking with David Sanger of the New York Times and Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University - questions and answers on Iran. If you have questions for us, 800-989-8255. Or send them by e-mail: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after a short break.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're taking your questions on Iran this hour: its influence, its relationships, its nuclear ambitions. Our guests are David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. Also with us is Abbas Milani, he's director of the Iran Studies Program at Stanford University. And, of course, you're the ones with the questions: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's go to Robert. Robert's calling us from Salt Lake City.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

ROBERT: A couple of thoughts. Actually, I wanted just to ask you if Iran had a history of nuclear development or that interest back when the Shah was in power in a government that we supported. Did they have a nuclear program back then?

CONAN: Let me ask Abbas Milani. Certainly, the nuclear reactors date back to the Shah's regime, and he was widely suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Prof. MILANI: The Shah began an extensive nuclear program in 1971. It was a multi-billion dollar project. It was helped at that time by the United States. It was helped by France and Germany and even Israel. Israel was one of the biggest proponents of Iran's nuclear program. There are indications that from 1975 on, Iran, Israel and South Africa were engaged in enrichment of uranium activities that got the United States worried at the time.

So by the time Carter came, there began to have some friction with the Shah over the extensive Iran's enrichment activities. Iran bought more or less $2 billion share in an enrichment company in France, and all of these things. And Carter's very keen interest in controlling the proliferation led to some backroom heated discussions. And all of these came to naught, because of the revolution, the Shah fell, and Ayatollah Khomeini almost immediately shut down the Iranian nuclear program because he claimed that these were imperialist junks sold by America to their lackey, the Shah of Iran.

Four years later, he changed his mind and restarted the program.

CONAN: Robert, thank you.

ROBERT: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Okay. Let's see if we can go to - this is Drew. Drew is with us from Wichita, Kansas.

DREW (Caller): Hi. Thank you.

CONAN: Sure.

DREW: Couple of questions. First is - part of the problem that we - our nation has - our government has in dealing with this situation all through that region, the fact that really it's sectarian groups who run things there, not government authorities.

CONAN: So we should be thinking Sunni-Shia rather than Iraq and Iran is what you're suggesting?

DREW: Yes.

CONAN: Okay. Well, first, let me ask Abbas Milani about that.

Prof. MILANI: I don't think so. There have been much made about this theory that there is a Shiites revival and that there is a sectarian civil war on - looming on the horizon, and that this has been the characteristic of 20th-century Middle East.

But if you look in 20th-century Middle East, there's been almost no evidence of sectarian violence. Contrary, there has been much, much evidence that Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, in Iran, in Jordan, in Bahrain, in all of these places live more or less comfortably together.

It is the events in Iraq and the events in Lebanon that have been fueling some of this. And my sense is the great majority of the Muslims in the region can and want to live peacefully with one another. They don't want this sectarian violence and the bloodshed that it is getting. And there is a record, the historical record that shows that it can be done.

DREW: Very interesting. The other idea I had or question I have was, China is very aggressively growing their economy, very aggressively trying to become a super power and is just scooping up resources and markets wherever they can. Would further embargos and isolation of Iran really be effective if China -either legally or illegally - is standing right there ready to be customary and (unintelligible)?

CONAN: David Sanger, to begin with, China has a veto, of course, on the United Nations Security Council, which would impose any sanctions.

Mr. SANGER: It does, and the question is put his finger right on the hardest problem at the U.N., and the reason that the Bush administration has been really reluctant to go back to the U.N. and get engaged in another lengthy debate about a resolution.

What the administration has learned is that business interests frequently trump proliferation interests, and their problem in putting together this resolution has been both Russia and China. In Russia's case, they're the suppliers of the new reactors that Iran is building at Bushir. They've slowed down their provision of that, but they do not want to cut themselves out of what's a multi-billion dollar business.

And in China's case, Iran is not only a potentially big market, it's a huge source of oil. And what the Chinese have been doing around the world - not just in Iran - is going in and investing in oil supplies so that they are not at the mercy of the market for their own ability to get the fuel they need to keep their growth going.

And so both countries have been very reluctant to sign on to anything beyond mild sanctions. And come December or January of this year, I was being told by administration officials they thought they had pretty well run out the string at the United Nations, and they we're going to focus pretty much on unilateral actions, sanctions, those aircraft carriers off the coast, so forth.

Now, though, they are interested in going back to the U.N. And they're interested for precisely the reason that Professor Milani identified early in the show, which is that the very fact of these resolutions has had a bigger political effect inside Iran than they anticipated.

DREW: Wow. Hey, thank you both very much.

CONAN: Appreciate you call, Drew. Here's an e-mail from John in Avondale, Arizona.

I have friends who have spent some time in Iran - some very recently. They report the Iranian people, generally, speaking like the United States. They like our way of life, our freedoms, our entertainment and so on. Does anyone see a way to bring these cultural similarities to the table to help us get past this impact? Professor Milani?

Prof. MILANI: I think the person who wrote this is absolutely right. There is overwhelming evidence that what we have in Iran is almost the reverse of what we have in every other Muslim country. In other Muslim countries, we have ostensibly pro-American governments. But the street is predominantly anti-American. In Iran, you have a government that is ostensibly anti-American, but a street that is predominantly pro-American.

Iranians are, after all, the only Muslim country that, on their own, after September 11, came to the streets and organized a vigil. And there are many other anecdotal as well as empirical evidence that that is the case. And that's why I think U.S. policy has a very important responsibility in trying to maintain that popular support.

The U.S. is set to spend $40 billion for public diplomacy in the rest of the world, trying to convince people to like America. And in Iran, where people already like America, to do something foolish that would get people on the wrong side would be, I think, extremely both dangerous and foolish.

CONAN: Thanks for that e-mail. And let's go now to - this is Joan. Joan's with us from San Francisco.

JOAN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

JOAN: I wanted to have comments from your guests on what Washington thinks about the Venezuela-Iran connections, specifically allegations of maybe nuclear exchange, you know, nuclear information exchange and especially being - it being - Venezuela being a site for a terrorist training.

CONAN: President Ahmadinejad has made several trips, I think, at this point, to Venezuela. David Sanger?

Mr. SANGER: Viewed here largely as a symbolic move, combining President Chavez's very strong anti-American and anti-President Bush message with President Ahmadinejad's message. I was at the United Nations' opening in September, and was at a dinner for about 20 people or so that the guest was President Ahmadinejad. And it was the day that President Chavez had made his podium-pounding comment.

CONAN: I still smell the sulfur in the room.

Mr. SANGER: That's right. And you have sort of the sense that President Ahmadinejad felt like he had been a little upstaged that he hadn't thought of the sulfur line, you know, when he was up there. They have an affinity that stretches from both a common view of the United States to the commonalities of two oil-producing nations.

But there's not been many evidence that I've seen that is persuasive of a link, either in nuclear projects or of much of a deeper political connection. Obviously, if they work together on disrupting oil markets, they would have more power. But there were several countries that would team up against them.

CONAN: Thanks, Joan.

JOAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail - this is from Sonia in New York City. An article analysis in the New York Times today states that Saudi Arabia is hosting talks with the United States and Syria.

The article states that Saudi feels Iran is not part of the Arab world. If this is the belief of Saudi Arabia, which is a major player in Middle Eastern politics, what is the place of Iran today?

Well, of course, Iran is not an Arab nation, or not largely and Arab nation. There's an Arab part of Iran, a minority in the southwestern part of Iran. But Professor Milani, the question still remains, what's the place of Iran in the larger context of regional politics in the Middle East today?

Prof. MILANI: I think though Iran is a non-Arab state, though Iran is the predominant Shiite country contrary to most others, Iran is a very important power in that region. Iran is, I think, the most powerful country in the Persian Gulf and it can play a very constructive role if the leadership of the country was in the hands of people who want to make constructive role in the future of the Middle East.

But I can clearly understand why Saudi Arabia and some of the other Arab states, particularly Sunni dominated Arab states, would be worried about the increasing influence that Iran has over Hezbollah in Lebanon. Contacts with Hamas in the Palestinian side, and contacts, extensive contacts with Shiites in places like Bahrain, that has a very large Shiite minority. And there is a history of Iranians' interference in Bahrain politics and trying to stir up the pot.

On the Venezuela question, I just want to add one point to the very clear and wonderful description that Mr. Sanger gave. And that is when Ahmadinejad came to Venezuela last time, he signed the $2 billion agreement with Venezuela on creating what they called an anti-imperialist fund. This was supposed to help the cause of anti-imperialism.

When Ahmadinejad went back to Iran, he was reprimanded by the Parliament, saying that he had no authority to sign an agreement for this kind of a fund that he was not authorized to sign. So there are many people in Iran who criticize his trips to these anti-American centers of politics like Sudan and Venezuela. Sudan is where he has been in the last two days.

CONAN: And David Sanger, what Professor Milani was saying about Bahrain. Of course, that's the base of the United States Fifth Fleet, an important military base in the Persian Gulf. Is the Bush administration concerned about Iranian influence in place like Bahrain, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia? Again, the oil-rich part of that country as well, and places of some of the emirates?

Mr. SANGER: They are. They believe that the Iranians have visions of reemerging as the biggest power in the Middle East. But they're not the only one with that concern. The Saudis have it as well. And obviously, this is part of the Sunni-Shia divide here. But if you think the United States is upset about the prospect that Iran could get close to a bomb, if you think the Israelis are upset about a prospect that Iran could get close to a bomb, go talk to the Saudis because they are particularly vivid on this subject.

And I think one of the big concerns in the Bush administration is that if the Iranian project goes too far, you're going to see another outbreak of proliferation. As countries, particularly Sunni countries in the region tried to build up a deterrent. Now we had that concern about the Mideast when Israel got the bomb. Didn't come to fruition. In Iran's case it might be a different story.

CONAN: We're talking with David Sanger of the New York Times and Abbas Milani of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University about questions and answers on Iran.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Brad on the line. Brad has been very patient in Boise, Idaho.

BRAD (Caller): Yes. In relation to our allegations that Iran is supplying arms in Iraq, isn't that something we should look back at ourselves and say isn't that our fault? I mean with nation building, shouldn't we understand we need to secure the borders? Shouldn't we have understood that was a very important part of nation building?

CONAN: David Sanger, there's a very porous border between Iran and Iraq.

Mr. SANGER: Yeah. Not only a porous border, but one that would be almost impossible to control. When you consider the troop levels that we put into Iraq and the debate about whether it was far too few in order to keep peace between Sunni and Shia, keep the militias down and so forth, imagine the number of troops it would have taken to patrol that border effectively.

I'm not sure that it is realistic. On top of which the Iranians make the point, a legitimate one, that they have as much interest in what goes on inside Iraq as the United States does, and they're a lot closer to it. So it's a hard case for us to make that we can play a role inside Iraqi politics and the Iranians could not.

BRAD: Thank you very much. You guys have a great day.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much. And let me get see if we can get one last caller in. This is Bob. Bob's with us from Chicago.

BOB (Caller): Yes. I was wondering what affect Israel giving up its nuclear weapons would have on Iran giving up their nuclear missions as well.

CONAN: To what degree, Abbas Milani, is Iran's nuclear ambitions tied to Israel's possession of nuclear weapons?

Prof. MILANI: Well, it is one of the claims that the Iranian regime makes almost ad nauseam. Saying that if nuclear weapons are bad, why is Israel allowed to have them? They have repeatedly declared that if the Middle East is declared a nuclear-free zone, they will certainly abide by it. I don't think there is a credible possibility that Israel will give up its nuclear program. And thus I think the question is essentially academic. But academically speaking, the Iranians are very much on record that they're much worried about this, and that if Israel give it up, Iran will give it up.

CONAN: David Sanger, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Israel is not. That's why there is some mechanism for the United States and the United Nations to put pressure on Iran. But that dichotomy, besides the paper agreements, that dichotomy exists. Is there a double standard? That's clearly a big part of Iran's argument.

Mr. SANGER: There certainly is a double standard. There are three countries that decided not to sign on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And Israel's one of them, and of course India and Pakistan are the other two, and North Korea left it. And this poses a major problem for the United States because it is making the argument that a country that is a signatory to the NPT should not be allowed to develop nuclear technology because we don't trust them. And the argument they make is that Iran hid information from inspectors for many, many years.

The big question now is how do you move past that? How do you get into some kind of a regime? A nonproliferation regime, some kind of an agreement that makes it clear that we have certain countries that can get access only to civilian technology.

CONAN: David Sanger, a chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much.

Mr. SANGER: Thank you.

CONAN: And Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford. Thank you for your time today, too. Appreciate it.

Prof. MILANI: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, it's the Motley Fool. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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